Marco Mueller Discusses His Sudden Exit as Macao Film Festival Threatens to Sue

Marco Mueller H 2015
Clifford Coonan

Festival organizers said they were considering suing the veteran festival director for his abrupt resignation, less than a month before the event is set to open.

Marco Mueller is opening up about his sudden resignation from the Macao International Film Festival and Awards (IFFAM). The industry veteran gave the global film festival community a shock on Saturday by announcing that he was departing the fest he helped create less than a month before its inaugural edition.   

Mueller's surprise announcement of his exit preempted a press conference the Macao festival held Monday to unveil the lineup of films that would be shown at the event. Addressing their fest director's sudden flight, members of the event's organizing team said they were contemplating legal action against him.

Speaking by phone from Macao, Mueller tells The Hollywood Reporter that the reason for his resignation was "diverging opinions on the way a festival was to be run, especially the inaugural edition of the festival." He declined to elaborate and wouldn't say whether a specific incident prompted his departure.

A mainstay of the festival circuit and a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker, Mueller previously headed the Locarno, Venice and Rome film festivals, as well as the Beijing and Fuzhou Silk Road film festivals in China.

"They said they are going to sue me," he adds. "It's inconceivable that they would talk first, when normally they should have called me, instead of announcing it to the press."

Mueller says he signed an "agreement, not a contract" with the Macao Government Tourism Office (MGTO) before their working relationship began. "That's why I was really shocked that, at the press conference, the MGTO and the MFTPA [Macau Films & Television Productions and Culture Association] mentioned that they are contemplating legal action," he adds.

The festival lineup that the IFFAM unveiled Monday was the same one that he and a team of international consultants had put together though, according to Mueller.

"I think we have done tremendous work," he says. "We have been very busy putting together this program. Imagine how it is, to try and sell a festival that has not existed so far, to try and sell Macau, a tiny dot on the geographical map."

The plan to create a new festival in Macau, the former Portuguese colony turned wealthy casino enclave in southern China, was announced at the Berlin International Film Festival last February — and it was news that many in the industry cheered as an opportunity for deeper engagement with the fast-growing Chinese movie world. 

The lineup unveiled Monday includes an international competition section; a "Hidden Dragons" section representing the latest trends in contemporary Asian genre cinema; a Best of Fest program of award-winning features from other festivals; and a Crossfire category of a dozen films selected by renowned East Asian filmmakers. Notably, there were no Hollywood films included throughout the festival's first lineup. 

Mueller declined to reveal whether the decision not to include Hollywood titles was what caused the split of opinion among the organizing committee. 

"The potential success of the festival this year will prove that there is space for another festival in this part of Asia, and the media and the industry will be present," says Mueller. "Starting from next year, you can imagine big Hollywood films coming to the festival. You have to clarify your national and international media policy, and your industry and market policy."

Speculation has been rife in Macau since the news of his resignation was made public. The Macau Daily Times quoted unnamed sources as saying that the festival's local organizing team was chaotic and rife with nepotism, where people with no experience in films or film festivals were put into positions of importance.

As for leaving a festival he has helped nurture since its inception, Mueller says he is conflicted. "I feel serene, because we have worked hard [and] we have done everything that we tried to do. But of course, at the same time, I'm very sad to leave the festival before it's begun. So many films are waiting for their world, international or Asian premiere in Macau, but I'm sure a team is there; they know how to take care of the films. And the international consultants will be there to help — to take good care of each and every film."

Next for the renowned festival director — now that he suddenly has some flexibility in his schedule — is a trip to India.

"For many years I have been a mentor for the Work in Progress Lab in Goa. So I'm traveling to India to be a mentor in a big culture workshop," Mueller says.

But, it seems, his mind is still in Macau. "Actually, another wonderful film in the [IFFAM] festival program is the world premiere of Gurgaon. It is a film that I discovered in the Work in Progress Lab last year," he says. "I've been following the postproduction of the film. It can only be described as such a beautiful film."